Stressed? Who isn’t? A recent survey found that more than 75 per cent of Americans alone feel they’re not coping with their overloaded lives, while it’s estimated that a staggering 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians are linked to the effects of stress. Chronic stress is now a global epidemic and a silent killer, linked to the six leading causes of death (which are, in case you’re wondering, heart disease; cancer; lung ailments; accidents; cirrhosis of the liver and suicide). It’s scary stuff.
The cures for stress are many and varied but none, perhaps, as delicious as a stay at Parkschlosschen, a luxury hotel with a difference in western Germany. It may look like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, with its half-timbered walls, pointy slate roofs and cocooning fir trees, but inside it’s dedicated to the ancient Indian system of medicine – ayurveda. Unusually for a spa, the clientele comprises a pretty even split of men and women, mainly stressed-out executives and harried professionals, desperate to de-stress and unwind.
Ayurveda is exceedingly hip at the moment and every other spa offers ‘ayurvedic massage’ – but this is pukka, the real thing, with doctors trained in both western medicine and ayurveda and a crack team of therapists and chefs who have dedicated their lives to the ancient science.
Their results are impressive – many find that after a stay at Parkschlosschen a host of physical ailments (including gastritis, allergies, eczema, high blood pressure, sciatica, rheumatism and menstrual problems) vastly improve or simply vanish. Psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks respond well too. People with chronic stress calm down and people with chronic exhaustion perk up.
But the doctors weren’t content with this anecdotal evidence. They got in the University of Trier’s stress researchers who ran tests on guests before and after the centre’s signature package, a ten-day deep detoxification programme (known as panchakarma). The results were clear-cut: cortisol (a key stress hormone) levels normalised across the board.
Many people like the idea of ayurveda but are put off by the fear that it might all be too bizarre, too esoteric, too hippy-dippy, too unpleasant. Rumours abound of strange massages, nasty enemas, purgative vomiting and even blood-letting. Even worse people reported, wide-eyed with horror, that you were fed a diet of endless lentil curry. Put your fears to rest: this is Germany for heaven’s sake and, true to the stereotypes, it is all very sane, sensible, brisk, efficient and down-to-earth.
All visits start with a consultation with one of the medical doctors. At first it’s all reassuringly clinical – they take a case history and, if necessary, will do all the standard tests (ECG, heart echo, blood sugars, lipid status, blood sedimentation and so on). However then it does get a little left-field. The doctor takes, not one pulse, but several – to determine your ayurvedic mind-body type. The theory is quite complex but all you really need to know is that ayurveda teaches that all us fall into three basic categories (known as vata, pitta, kapha) and that, for perfect health we need to live, eat and exercise according to our predominant type or dosha (see the box). It’s a system that has been refined over 5,000 years of observation and it really does work. It transpires that I’m a pitta-kapha – a combination of two doshas and am given guidelines for daily living and a list of foods to eat and foods to avoid.
Unlike many spas, where you get to pick your treatments according to what you fancy and what you can afford, here you don’t get any choice. The doctor prescribes what you need (according to your dosha, of course) and I found my days fell into a rhythmic routine of floating up and down the lift between my room and the treatment area.
I’ve had a lot of ayurvedic treatment in the past, and undergone panchakarma both in the UK and in India and I have to say that the Parkschlosschen team are very good indeed. They follow a gentler style of ayurveda, which eschews therapeutic vomiting and bloodletting (praise be) and instead focuses on clearing out the body in gentler ways – with diet, breathing, yoga and the most sublime series of body treatments known to humankind. Virtually all massages involve two therapists working in perfect synchronisation – so you are massaged by four hands all at once – along with a liberal coating of sesame oil. Some are obviously old hands (sorry for the pun) and have this off absolutely pat – you don’t know where one set of hands ends and the other begins. Others aren’t quite so adept yet – but it’s still a dramatically soothing experience. Let me warn you though – neither ayurveda nor Germany do coy – so you can expect to stand, sit and lie buck-naked throughout (therapists are always the same gender as you and their brisk no-nonsense manner takes away the majority of the cringe-factor).
If you opt for full-on panchakarma there is the small question of drinking ghee (clarified butter) and castor oil. I won’t say it’s akin to a champagne cocktail but, in all honesty, it’s more than bearable. And, while we’re discussing the down-sides, I have to confess that you undergo a series of bastis (enemas). In cold print it sounds awful but somehow, once you’re there and in the swing of it, it is just all part of the package – and (hand on heart) no big deal.
If you just can’t get past that, then opt for the new Manager Programme, a shorter stay that aims to reduce stress and re-educate burnt-out professionals without scaring them out of their comfort zones.
Whichever package you choose, you will learn to love meal-times. Ayurveda just doesn’t do starvation rations – its philosophy states that food is to be enjoyed and savoured. Add the fact that this is a five-star hotel with a kitchen that seems determined to ram home the point. Other ayurvedic spas and retreats do tend to go for traditional (hence Indian) fare. I don’t have the remotest problem with that and can (and often did) eat dal until it was coming out of my ears. But not here. Head chef Eckehard Fischer is not only a superb cook but has been studying ayurveda for decades. He has taken all the principles of ayurvedic eating and then made a quantum leap, producing absolutely gorgeous food that looks stunning, tastes sublime and (yes, there IS a god) does you good as well. There are some anomalies to get used to: a pungent ‘cocktail’ before meals to get your digestive fire (known as agni) going. Hot tea with your meals rather than water or wine (cold drinks slow down digestion). Oh, and you get pudding first – as fruit is considered harder to digest than other food. But then it’s just gorgeous little piles of this, puddles of that and frilly bits around the edges. It’s all vegetarian but – hand on heart – I challenge the most avid meat-eater not to be more than satisfied.
Parkschlosschen is almost fanatical about protecting your health. The electrical wiring is double shielded (to avoid electro-magnetic stress), the rooms have all been checked for underground watercourses (said to send up negative energy) and only natural materials have been used for all the decoration and furnishing. You will be assigned a room according to your predominant dosha, decorated specifically to soothe your mind and body. I have to say I could barely detect the colour of mine (apparently a Kapha-calming apricot) and think they could have been a little braver with their décor – you can find similarly bland and boring hotel rooms the world over. I also had trouble with the music – twist the dial by your bed and supposedly you should find yourself relaxing to serene chanting or soothing ayurvedic music. All I could get was some rather irritating grumbling noises. Not the desired effect.
When you’re not eating or being massaged, you are encouraged to take gentle exercise. A gentle swim in the pool watched over by a vast benign Buddha perhaps? Or a wander up through the surrounding vineyards (Parkschlosschen lies close to the Mosel river, a renowned wine-growing area). You’ll be urged to join a yoga or Pilates class and learn pranayama (yogic breathing). There’s a smart, well-equipped gym and experts on hand to help you work out the best regime for your body-mind type. Or, of course, you could simply veg out in the thermal bath, the aroma sauna or the steam room.
I left Parkschlosschen feeling pretty darn fabulous. I was breathing deeper, sleeping better and, at some point during my stay, my jaw had decided to let go of its permanent state of tension and unclench itself, relieving me of a chronic headache. I felt well-fed, pampered and very nearly serene. This may seem an unusual location for full-on ayurveda but, you know, it works. And if you’re an uptight professional who can’t be doing with all the navel-gazing and incense-burning, you might just have found nirvana.
My verdict? Fabulous hotel, gorgeous setting, excellent therapists and stunning food. A slightly surreal experience, the mix of German and Indian but on the whole it works.
Hotel Parkschlosschen Bad Wildstein, Traben-Trabach, Germany. www.parkschloesschen.de
If you’re interested in finding out more about ayurveda, check out my book Live Well – the ayurvedic way to health and inner bliss
What’s your dosha?
Ayurveda recognises three major body-mind types, known as doshas – vata, pitta, kapha. Find out your predominant dosha by deciding which of these three profiles is most like you.
- I often feel restless and unsettled.
- I often find it hard to get to sleep and sleep very lightly.
- I feel the cold and dislike windy weather.
- I easily get tired.
- I have a slim build with light bone structure.
- I tend to get headaches, constipation, eczema or nervous disorders.
- I tend to be anxious and worry too much when I’m stressed.
- I am very competitive.
- I am a perfectionist, often demanding and critical.
- I have a medium build.
- I am a hot person and don’t tolerate hot weather well.
- I tend to get rashes, allergies, heartburn, ulcers or fevers.
- I often get frustrated or angry when I’m stressed.
- I dream vividly, often in colour, and usually remember my dreams.
- I am a pretty laid-back person on the whole but I can get depressed.
- I enjoy regular routine; I’m reliable and steady.
- I have a heavier build and easily gain weight.
- I tend to suffer from sinus problems, asthma, fluid retention and excess mucous.
- I avoid stressful situations at all costs.
- I have a lot of stamina.
- I sleep long and deep, and rarely remember dreams.
If you are:
- Mainly A – you are a Vata type.
- Mainly B – you are a Pitta type.
- Mainly C – you are a Kapha type.
How to balance Vata
- Strive for regularity and routine – eat meals at the same time each day; go to bed at the same time.
- Food should be unctuous (add a little oil or butter so it isn’t too dry) Avoid cold and iced foods and drinks in particular; raw food (salads etc) and go easy on beans and pulses.
- Keep warm – both physically and emotionally.
- Learn to express your feelings – try assertiveness training or counselling if this is a problem.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid sensory overload – loud music, flashing lights, swift-action computer games.
How to balance Pitta
- Keep your cool in all ways. Stay out of the hot sun and boiling saunas. Finish off a warm bath or shower with a cool rinse.
- Eat soothing, cooling foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables; milk, soft cheeses, cottage cheese and ice cream. Wholegrains are great, as are dark green leafy vegetables. Avoid hot spicy foods, alcohol, heavy meat dishes, greasy food, caffeine and salt.
- Don’t take on too many challenges – learn to pace yourself and have some fun along the way.
- Cultivate the fine art of doing nothing.
- Avoid highly competitive sports and try more calming activities such as hiking, swimming, yoga and Pilates.
- Meditation will soothe that active Pitta mind.
How to balance Kapha
- Learn to let go – whether it be objects, people, emotions, weight. Kaphas are terrible hoarders.
- Get out of your rut and allow some change and unpredictability into your life. Take the odd chance.
- Eat warm, light, dry foods – nothing stodgy or greasy. Grains such as millet, barley and rye are good choices. Add plenty of vegetables and lots of herbs and spices. Avoid wheat, dairy produce, sugar and iced foods and drinks.
- Get moving. Stimulate kapha with vigorous workouts such as step, kickboxing, long distance running or weight-training. Do some exercise every day.
- Take on new challenges and activities.
- Early to bed, early to rise is a good maxim for kaphas.
Ayurveda has a whole host of (mainly!) delicious treatments.
Abhyanga: a herbalised oil massage given by two therapists working in perfect synchronisation. Your body type and any imbalances will determine the type of oil, the length of the treatment and the depth of stroke used. Abhyanga loosens impurities from the body.
Swedena: herbalised steam bath that promotes the eliminatin of toxins.
Basti: herbal oil enemas which remove toxins from the intestinal tract after loosening by other treatments.
Pizzichilli: known as the “Royal Treatment”, two therapists massage you while you lie in a constant flow of hot herbalised oil.
Shirodhara: a soothing stream of oil passes backwards and forwards over the forehead. Deeply relaxing.
Garshan: a brisk, thorough massage using raw silk gloves that stimulates the metabolism, circulation and lymphatic flow to aid the removal of toxins. Excellent for cellulite.
Vishesh: stimulating massage for deep-seated muscle aches and pains and for removing stubborn toxins.
Urdvartana: a vigorous full-body massage using a herbalised paste. Very stimulating and exfoliating – it’s excellent for weight-loss. The skin is left soft and silky.